International Labor Rights Forum urge action on seafood industry worker abuse

The International Labor Rights Forum recently released a 63-page study documenting a pilot project which trialed a new technology platform designed to collect and report on working conditions at sea. 

The project, dubbed Independent Monitoring at Sea (IM@Sea), is a technology package with the combined capabilities of vessel monitoring, electronic catch reporting, and electronic video monitoring. Workers on vessels used smartphones to connect with onboard WiFi to give responses, and workers and vessel owners were interviewed onshore. 

The project comes at a time when the treatment of workers in the seafood industry is under heightened scrutiny following revelations about worker abuses, particularly in Thailand. Thailand has faced criticism from multiple governments and organizations after exposés on forced labor and other abuses highlighted some of the issues within the country’s seafood industry.

Within the ILRF report, the organization said that they learned that even with additional reporting, forced labor and worker abuse will likely continue without a unilateral approach by governments and industry actors. 

“The report finds that while technological solutions provide powerful tools to address labor exploitation at sea, they are not in themselves sufficient to do so,” stated the ILRF. 

The report laid out four main routes for improving the “social sustainability” aspect of seafood: Genuine worker representation, comprehensive and transparent risk assessment and verification of workplace compliance, legally binding and enforceable agreements, and changes in brand purchasing practices. 

Worker representation was the main objective of their new technology platform, which allowed workers to report on their conditions in real-time, something that the ILRF said would be of great value to preventing future worker abuse.

“The IM@Sea project established the technological foundation for effective real-time worker-driven monitoring at sea, and proved such an approach to due diligence is not only feasible, but also desirable,” the report said.

The project also found that at-sea monitoring was not enough, and that the on-shore interview component was still valuable. 

“Onshore assessments and worker control of data flows are critical to the success of human rights compliance programs in the fisheries sector,” the report stated. “While at-sea data collection is important, onshore assessments build connections between workers and their representative organizations and provide more accurate information on certain conditions.”

A key finding of the study was that even with additional monitoring, enforceable agreements, and more; workers can still be susceptible to abuse if purchasing practices allow for it. 

“Buyers must determine not only what practices suppliers might have that leave workers vulnerable, but what practices they have that lead to precarious work conditions in supplier facilities,” the ILRF said.

The ILRF report gave special attention to Thailand in light of the recent reports on labor abuses in the country. While the organization praised Thailand for its efforts to curtail the most severe labor abuse, it also criticized the country for not moving fast enough. 

“Some of these regulatory changes in this period are significant, but effective implementation has lagged behind,” states the report. “The Thai government has also failed to put in place systems that empower migrant workers to seek legal remedies against abusive employers.”

Recently, information came out that the EU will not be lifting the “yellow card” warning it gave Thailand over illegal fishing. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing has been frequently associated with worker abuse, something that the ILRF highlighted in their report. 

The Environmental Justice Foundation also spoke to the news that the “yellow card” will remain in place. The EJF has engaged in on-the-ground investigations of Thailand’s fleets for the past few years, discovering both positive signs of increased effort on the Thai government’s part coupled with shortcomings. 

“EJF has observed shortcomings of the inspections that need to be addressed to tackle human trafficking in the Thai fleet, a problem closely connected to illegal fishing,” wrote the EJF in a statement about the EU yellow card. “Issues of concern include the inconsistent application of a victim-centered approach towards inspections and lack of translators for migrant crews, meaning they may be unable to give effective evidence in interviews.”

The Thai government released some of its current and continuing efforts to combat worker abuse and IUU in its waters. Among those are an upgrade to the effectiveness of the country’s Fisheries Monitoring Center. In a release on 16 May, the country announced upgrades to the Vessel Monitoring System equipment, allowing the country to monitor and process data more efficiently. It also announced a set of five new “special arrest teams” appointed to investigate and arrest offenders of fishery related crimes and human trafficking in the fisheries sector. 

“The teams made 50 arrests during the first two weeks and will continue to work in parallel to regular law enforcement officers to enhance capacity in the same fashion as what the mobile inspection teamsa re doing to enhance capacity of Port-in Port-out inspectors,” the release said.

Regardless of Thailand’s efforts to curtail worker abuse, the ILRF was adamant that progress can’t be done without collaboration between industry, governments, and retail buyers. The report criticized brands and governments that sourced their seafood from Thailand even while knowing the country has a history of worker abuses. 

“Even if the Thai government strengthens its legal framework and enforcement regime, businesses sourcing from Thailand cannot outsource to governments their responsibility under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) to conduct due diligence and remediate adverse human rights impacts identified in their supply chains,” states the ILRF report. “Brand respect for the human rights of workers in their supply chains requires a change in purchasing practices that incentivizes and enables suppliers to comply with human rights norms.”

Photo courtesy of the International Labor Rights Forum


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